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Gov. Bentley, Part 1: Jobs, Healthcare, Shaking Things Up

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

The day after the Legislature passed the “Jobs Package, “ that was a great part of the Governor’s agenda, we had the privilege to sit with Governor Bentley and talk about the bills, and the other matters that he is planning for the state. The Governor share many insights into his goals and his mission.

APR: Governor Bentley, If you don’t mind, I would like to hear your thoughts on the passage of HB159 and the Jobs package as a whole. I know it was a signature bill for you and it was a tough one to get through.

GOV. BENTLEY: I really was. One of the most important things that we are trying to do right now, and we worked so hard on it last year, is create jobs in the state. Alabama offers so many things that companies like. We are a right to work state, one of 22, and that is one of the most important things especially for Asian companies and even European companies. So that is one, another is the low cost of doing business in Alabama. We are a very pro-business state. We try to keep down regulations as much as possible on businesses.

robert-bentleyWe have low taxes in Alabama. We also have the best workforce development programs of any state. I mean, we train workers and have the best workers of any state in the country. I’m telling you, I go around to these plants and I see these workers. They work hard. They do a great job and it is always an honor for me to go and watch these guys work. These men and women just do a fantastic job.

The other thing that I have as governor, we put together these packages to try to recruit industries, we have incentive packages. But when I came into office most of it was gone, the money that was available, the 666 money. That sounds bad doesn’t it?

APR: Yes it does if you are a believing Christian.

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GOV. BENTLEY: Yeah, but that is what it was called. Most of that in fact was all gone. It kind of left before I got in office. But, we do have the ability to still float some bond issues up to $100 million to help new companies come in. But with the ones that we recruited this year and the ones that we still feel like we are going to get by next summer (some really big projects) that money has been promised.

So I am confident in my tool kit as far as incentive packages. This House Bill160 and the enabling bill which is our constitutional amendment [HB159]. Will give us what we need to really make things happen concerning jobs.
The people of Alabama will be able to vote on this. I’m sure there will be a push from the AEA to try to kill it. I may have to go on television and explain to the people that this will not take money out of education. People will understand that you can’t give money to education if you don’t have a job, paying taxes.

There [the AEA’s] reasoning is totally erroneous. I have argued with them on that subject for 10 years because if no job is there then no taxes are being paid. So, HB159 gives us the constitutional amendment we need and 160 was actually the bill itself. They passed the bill [HB160] before they passed he constitutional amendment. It had to have 63 votes to pass the constitutional amendment. We knew it was going to be close. But in the end we actually got 66 votes.

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We are very excited. I did go over to the House and spend time on the Floor working with the people that I had talked to. I working to really kind of shore up and make sure that those people who had committed to me that they would vote did vote for it and me being there on the floor helped, I think.

APR: Well, I heard there might have been something private meeting going on on the second floor and that you had met with some folks.

GOV. BENTLEY: We did the day before. We met with a number of people. I would call them down individually. Some said they could vote with me and some said they couldn’t. But, I don’t get mad at people, I just try to convince them that this is the right thing to do. I just said, “Whoever you are voting for, whether you are voting for or against, just remember that you are voting for the people of Alabama today because we are creating jobs.

APR: That is one of the things that I had spoken with a lot of folks about and I happened to talked about it on the Capital Journal. I said, “Look people don’t have jobs. If Mom and Dad don’t have a job and they can’t put food on the table, if they can’t provide clothes for their family, or can’t give their children a home, then you can have the best educational system in the world, but these children can’t learn if they don’t have food, clothing and shelter.” It’s impossible.

The logic of what you’re saying is so honest and the other logic is dishonest.

GOV. BENTLEY: It is dishonest. Honestly, I think AEA drew a line in the sand on some issues. They said, “We are going to win on this.” And they didn’t.

Now, we have got to get it through the Senate and I believe we can do that. And then we have got to convince the people of Alabama that what we are trying to do is create jobs and if I have to go on statewide television to do it, we’ll do it.

APR: I know that recently you were in DC. Being a physician you have the unique insight about healthcare and health in general. People are concerned about the healthcare exchange and the effect that is going to have on Alabama. Did your DC trip reveal anything on that? Any thoughts?

GOV. BENTLEY: To be honest with you, the people I went to see in DC…what came out of my mouth was foreign to them because this was a group of liberal bureaucrats. When I talked about it from a real life point of view from practicing medicine and talked about it from a conservative point of view, they just sat there. I didn’t get a lot of applause, but I didn’t water down my message either.

I think one of the worst pieces of legislation that has ever been passed in this country is the Affordable Healthcare Act [Obamacare]. I really do. It’s not going to be an affordable healthcare act because it is going to cost us so much money that this country is not going to be able to afford it. So, the only thing that I like in it are preexisting conditions, to allow people who have preexisting conditions to be able to buy health insurance.

I think we need to help people who have preexisting conditions do that. Now you can do that with risk pools, you can do it with a lot of things to form insurance companies, with risk pools, and spread that around with other insurance companies so that not everybody is caught with that.

If we in the state do not come up with some type of insurance exchange then the federal government will do that. And it will go into effect in 2014.

Let me go back and say this, One of the things I looked at when I ran for governor was a free market exchange–which is certainly different than what the federal government wants to do. It would make it easy for people to go online, and have more companies come in and be more of a free market model. It would be modeled a little bit after Utah’s exchange rather than the exchange up in Massechusets.

I’m not sure that what the federal government is trying to do right now can be done. What was presented to me at that commission that we are doing right now for an exchange in Alabama. What they gave to me I was lukewarm on it. If we don’t get improvement on what was presented then I think it would be better just not to have one.

APR: What are the consequences of that?

GOV. BENTLEY: Well, the consequences are the federal government will come up with something, they say, if they can. I’m not sure they can do it. In fact, I think that is why they want states to try it because they don’t know what to do.

APR: It still looks like it is going to be heard before the Supreme Court.

GOV. BENTLEY: That’s right. And I would like to see what that ruling is going to be because I truly believe that parts of this bill are unconstitutional. I am hoping that the Supreme Court will rule that it is unconstitutional.

APR: This brings me to another question. I like it when you, do what you call, “Shaking things up.” I enjoy that. I have often thought when watching you, I have wondered do you take your work home with you? Is this job something that stays with you? Do you get inspiration? I just would like to know how your thinking works.

GOV. BENTLEY: I have to make a lot of decisions every day.

APR: I can’t imagine.

GOV. BENTLEY: I really do. But I have confidence that I have a connection with the people of the state. I believe that my thinking is with the vast majority of the people of Alabama. So I believe that many of the decisions that I make are going to be accepted and even if they are not I do believe that the people trust me. They know that I am going to be honest, that I am not going to lie, that I’m not going to be any different…these folks [staff] don’t see me any different…I’m not any different at home than I am here in the office. I’m the same person.

I pray that God gives me wisdom every day and I truly believe He controls my whole life. He has done that for a long, long time. So, I pray that he continues to give me wisdom, so, I make decisions and I move on.

I may make mistakes and if I do, I admit those. I say, “Oh, that was a mistake” or “I changed my mind.” I just say that I have just changed my mind. If I get more facts in, there is nothing wrong with that.

I can not be burdened down by past decisions, I have too many to make. So I make them with the confidence that I believe that God directs me and gives me wisdom. He gives me some special gifts of understanding people. Do I take it home, I just don’t worry about it.

APR: It’s inspirational, I think the people of Alabama are happy with the job that you are doing. We hear that whether it is in my church, or the grocery store. We went into Walmart and ran into some friends of Susan’s, we showed them the picture of you and Susan. They said, “We love the Governor, he seems so real and honest, but is he like that all the time?” And we said, “Yeah, he’s like that all the time.”

GOV. BENTLEY: You know what? I love the people of this state. I really do, just like I did my patients and my patients love me. When I ran in the runoff for governor, I got 87 or 88 percent of the vote in Tuscaloosa County. That is pretty strong when that many people vote for you, but they know you. And I love them and they love me, it’s a mutual thing.

I believe you have to be a servant-leader. A leader is really a servant of the people. You have just got to believe that every day you are getting up and trying to do the best for the people of the state and care about them. You see a lot of politicians–and I don’t consider myself a politician–politicians care more about the process. Beating the other guy or this type of thing, but they don’t care about the people that they serve.

I saw it so often during the tornadoes. I would take these politicians with me and I would be trying to put my arm around people who had lost a loved one and care about them and try to comfort them and they [the politicians] were back there texting.

If somebody was telling me about their son or daughter that was just killed in the tornado, I had some of them that were with me that were back there on the cellphone, they just didn’t seem to care about the people. I’m not being critical, I guess everybody is different, I know they are.

APR: Well years as a physician, you have seen people with problems up close and personal everyday of your life. It makes a difference.

In part two Governor Bentley talks about goals and plans for the future.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Alabama’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases continue rise

Average daily hospitalizations continue an ongoing increase as cases nationwide surge.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Alabama hit 863 on Wednesday, the highest daily count since Sept 4, as average daily hospitalizations continue a steady increase and cases nationwide surge.

UAB Hospital in Birmingham on Wednesday was caring for 72 COVID-19 inpatients — the highest number the hospital has cared for since Aug. 21. 

In the last two weeks, Alabama has reported an increase of 15,089 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and APR‘s calculations.

That number is the largest increase over a 14-day period since the two weeks ending Sept. 9. On average, the state has reported 1,078 new cases per day over the last two weeks, the highest 14-day average since Sept. 9.

The state reported 1,390 new confirmed and probable cases Thursday. Over the last week, the state has reported 7,902 cases, the most in a seven-day period since the week ending Sept. 5. That’s an average of 1,129 cases per day over the last seven days.

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Alabama’s positivity rate, based on 14-day case and test increases, was nearly 16 percent Thursday, the highest that rate has been since mid-September.

Public health experts say the positivity rate, which measures the number of positive cases as a percentage of total tests, needs to be at or below 5 percent. Any higher, and experts say there’s not enough testing and cases are likely to be going undetected. 

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“I really won’t feel comfortable until we’re down to about 3 percent,” said Dr. Karen Landers, the state’s assistant health officer, speaking to APR last week

While new daily cases are beginning an upward trajectory, the number of tests administered statewide is not, contributing to the increasing positivity rate. The 14-day average of tests per day on Thursday was 6,856 — a nearly 10 percent decrease from two weeks prior. 

Over the last two weeks, ADPH reported 206 new COVID-19 deaths statewide, amounting to an average of 15 deaths per day over the last 14 days.

So far during the month of October, ADPH has reported 303 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. In September, the total was 373. Since March, at least 2,843 people have died from the coronavirus.

The number of new cases nationwide appear to be headed toward a new high, according to data gathered by the COVID Tracking Project. The United States is now reporting nearly 60,000 cases per day based on a seven-day average. At least 213,672 Americans have died, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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Courts

U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama can ban curbside voting

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, allowed Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to ban curbside voting, staying a district court injunction that had allowed some counties to offer curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s majority in its order declined to write an opinion, but Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor’s five-page dissent is included.

The lawsuit — filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — was brought on behalf of several older Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, closed using the words of one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

“Plaintiff Howard Porter Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s disease, told the District Court, ‘[So] many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – We’re past that time,’” Sotomayor wrote. 

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. 

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“I am proud to report the U.S. Supreme Court has now blocked a lower court’s order allowing the fraudulent practice of curbside voting in the State of Alabama,” Merrill said in a statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods – including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature.”

“The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient, and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters,” Merrill continued. “Tonight’s ruling in favor of election integrity and security is once again a win for the people of Alabama.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed frustration after the ruling in a tweet.

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“Another devastating loss for voters and a blow for our team fighting to ensure safe voting for Black and disabled voters in Alabama. With no explanation, the SCOTUS allows Alabama to continue making it as hard as possible for COVID-vulnerable voters,” Ifill wrote.

Curbside voting is not explicitly banned by state law in Alabama, but Merrill has argued that because the practice is not addressed in the law, he believes it to be illegal. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 order ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

Caren Short, SPLC’s senior staff attorney, in a statement said the Supreme Court’s decision has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable Alabamians.

“Once again, the Supreme Court’s ‘shadow docket’ – where orders are issued without written explanation – has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable citizens amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis. After a two-week trial, a federal judge allowed counties in Alabama to implement curbside voting so that high-risk voters could avoid crowded polling locations,” Short said. “Tonight’s order prevents Alabama counties from even making that decision for themselves. Already common in states across the South and the country before 2020, curbside voting is a practice now encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It should be a no-brainer to implement everywhere during a pandemic; the Alabama Secretary of State unfortunately disagrees, as does the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Education

SPLC files complaints in Pike County over suspension of two Black students

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed two complaints with an Alabama juvenile court alleging the Pike County Board of Education arbitrarily suspended two students in violation of their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. 

“Students across Alabama continue to be excluded from school without regard for their due process rights, leading to unwarranted and unlawful suspensions and expulsions,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s children’s rights project, in a statement. 

“This is particularly troubling for Black students who are three times more likely to be excluded from school for minor and subjective infractions than their white peers. Education is an important aspect of a young person’s life and the decision to exclude them from school should not be taken lightly,” Tafelski continued. 

Both complaints, filed in Pike County Juvenile Court, ask the court to reverse suspensions of RaQuan Martin and Dakarai Pelton, both Black and former students at Goshen High School. 

The complaints state that on Nov. 22, 2019, both students were approached by the school’s principal “in connection with alleged rumors that a group of students had ‘smoked’ that same day in the parking lot at school.” The principal alleged he had video security footage of them doing so, but wouldn’t show the students the footage, according to the complaints. 

Both boys told the principal that they had not used marijuana, but had both accompanied another student to their car in the parking lot, and both left when the other student showed them what appeared to be drug paraphernalia.

“The students, both seniors at the time, denied the allegations and even took drug tests that showed they had no drugs in their system that day. But the school refused to consider this evidence,” the SPLC said in a press release. 

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The complaints state that the district failed to provide the students proper notice, including details about their charges, evidence of wrongdoing, a meaningful opportunity to be heard or to present evidence of their own and question witnesses during their hearings. 

“Only you know what did or didn’t happen in that vehicle … you dodged a bullet here because we didn’t have the proof that we need,” said one school board member to one of the students during his hearing, according to the complaint. 

“There was no proper investigation at all,” said Shatarra Pelton, Dakarai’s mother, in a statement. “It was unorganized and overblown. The school was unable to produce any evidence other than hearsay.” 

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After a brief hearing, both seniors were suspended for the rest of the school year, missing out on a chance to finish their high school athletics and potentially missing out on college football scholarships as a result, the complaints state. 

Prior to their suspensions, both students had no disciplinary referrals and were making good grades, according to the complaints. 

“On Jan. 13, the students appealed the Council’s decision to the Pike County Board of Education, and the board agreed to consider allowing the students to return to GHS if they participated in drug treatment classes, passed urine and hair follicle drug tests and maintained perfect attendance at the alternative school. After completing all the requirements, the students returned to school on Feb. 21 – three months after their removal,” the SPLC said in the release. 

“He had a rough senior year, to say the least,” said Tasha Martin, RaQuan’s mother, in a statement. “He missed senior night, he missed everything.” 

“They didn’t get to play not one game,” Martin said. “They had some coaches visit them while they were in alternative school but when the coaches found out that they couldn’t go back to school, they stopped coming. Our families were devastated; sometimes me and Ms. Pelton would be on the phone and just cry to each other. It has been really tough.”  

“I want schools to understand that it’s not just a moment you’re ruining, you’re ruining a lifetime,” Pelton said. “With no factual basis, only an unproven accusation, you have just completely deterred a student’s life. Most schools say that they are there for their students, but you are showing them the total opposite.”

Pike County Schools during the 2019-2020 school year referred 49 students to a disciplinary hearing, according to the SPLC. Of those, 48 students were either suspended or expelled, and although Black students made up less than 50 percent of the student population, Black students made up 80 percent of the referrals.  On average, Black students make up 77 percent of all students referred for disciplinary hearings in the district, according to the SPLC.

Both complaints can be read here and here.

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News

Biden urges Democrats to support Doug Jones

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

Brandon Moseley

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Former Vice President Joe Biden appears at a campaign rally in Birmingham with then-candidate Doug Jones in 2017. (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Wednesday asked Democratic donors to support the re-election of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

“I wanted to reach out to you about an old friend of mine: Doug Jones,” Biden said. “You might not believe this, but I met Doug more than 40 years ago, when I was a newly-minted junior senator, and he was in his early 20s, just beginning what would become one of the most impressive and dedicated careers of public service I’ve had the privilege of watching.”

“Doug has devoted his entire career to fighting for justice,” Biden said. “He’s the man who would not rest until the Klansmen who killed four young Black girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing were finally brought to justice. Doug has shown us, even in our darkest moments, that hope for the American promise is never lost — and what we can do when we stand united.”

In the email, Biden asked voters to split a contribution between the Biden campaign and Jones’s campaign.

“I need Doug’s help in the Senate,” Biden said. “He’s running neck-and-neck in his race in Alabama right now, and he needs our help to win.”

Biden said this election is “a battle for the soul of our country” and “few places are those stakes as clear as in Alabama.”

“I remember in 2017 when everyone counted Doug out,” Biden said. “When they thought that a message of unity would lose in a state where a long history of division still runs deep. But when I visited Alabama to help Doug, I saw what he saw – Alabama was ready to come together.”

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Biden was an early endorser of Jones in the 2017 special election, when Jones defeated former Chief Justice Roy Moore in that election. Jones returned the favor in the 2020 Democratic primary, endorsing Biden when the former vice president was having difficulty raising money and was polling well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

Jones campaigned hard with Biden in Selma and other campaign stops across Alabama prior to Super Tuesday on March 3.

“His win gave me hope,” Biden said. “I was both honored and proud to have escorted him onto the floor of the Senate and stood behind him when he was sworn in as a United States Senator. And his record has been extraordinary – passing 22 bipartisan bills helping farmers, military families, and those devastated by natural disasters. And in perhaps the most crucial fight of all – our health care – Doug has been there again and again standing up for all of us, especially those with pre-existing conditions. Every time we needed him to stand up for us, Doug Jones was there. I’m going to need Doug’s voice in the Senate. Alabama and America will need Doug’s voice in the Senate.”

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“Doug and I share a vision for a united country – one that puts faith over fear, fairness over privilege, and love over hate. And Doug, his campaign, and his career remind us that it’s a vision we can only realize if we come together,” Biden said.

In an Auburn University Montgomery poll, Biden trails Trump in Alabama by 17 points. Jones trailed former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville by 12 points. The Jones campaign claims that there has been a tightening of the race since then and it is a statistical tie. The Tuberville campaign disputes that claim.

Republican insider Perry Hooper Jr. said, “Whether it is the AUM poll, the Al.com poll, or internal polls by the (Tuberville) campaign, the margin is between 12 and 18 points in favor of Tuberville.”

The Jones campaign has been inundating the state airwaves with TV and radio ads due to the vast advantage that Jones has had fundraising. More than 82 percent of Jones’ money raised in the third quarter reporting cycle came from outside the state of Alabama.

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